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By Katy Spence

When you think about the founding members of Montana’s environmental movement, you rightly think of Robin Tawney Nichols and Phil Tawney, who founded the Environmental Information Center (EIC) in 1973.

We humbly suggest you also start thinking of Deborah Hanson.

In the 1960s, Deborah attended high school in Missoula with Robin and Phil before meeting her husband, Terry, at the University of Montana. They moved to South Dakota while Terry went to law school and returned in 1972. Having been out of the loop for a few years, they didn’t know that the Constitutional Convention had taken place and were not plugged in to the burgeoning environmental movement. In fact, it was a report calling for up to 52 new electrical generating plants in the Great Plains, including in Montana and across the border in the Dakotas, that caught Deborah’s attention. 

“They were going to mine coal and use our waters,” Deborah said. “When we heard that, we were appalled.”

Coal companies began pressuring local ranchers and farmers to lease their surface lands or sell their mineral rights, which led a group of ranchers to organize the Northern Plains Resource Council. Deborah and Terry became members in the early ’70s.

The following years were an exciting time of getting things done and preventing an influx of coal plants, Deborah said. She went to Helena and interned for Rep. Dorothy Bradley in the 1974 Legislative Session (there was a period from 1973 to 1975 where the Montana Legislature met annually). She said working for one of the first women in the Legislature was exciting, and while it seems hard to imagine today, lawmakers in the 1970s didn’t see environmental work as partisan. This is where Deborah reconnected with Robin and Phil. A year later, they formed EIC, and asked Deborah to be on the first Board of Directors.

“Robin and Phil came up with this novel idea that citizens needed to have an environmental presence at the Legislature and be up there educating and passing laws,” Deborah said. “Everybody felt empowered and optimistic. And it was great fun.”

In the years since, Deborah has worked with and been on the board for a number of influential conservation organizations in Montana, such as MEIC and Northern Plains Resource Council, where she presently chairs the Oil and Gas Task Force. She and her husband live in Miles City and help advocate for a sustainable economy in rural towns and in farm and ranch country.

Today, Deborah and Terry enjoy spending time with family, friends, and their 42-year-old pet parrot, Shortcake. They love good food, live music, dancing, and spending time on the river. Deborah believes people should get involved in issues they care about and reach out to young people.

“They have great ideas and are paying attention, especially regarding the climate,” Deborah said.


This article was published in the Dec. 2022 issue of Down To Earth. 

Read the full issue here.


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